In Memory of my Grandmother: Rita Barbara Roman; April 4th, 1933 - January 17, 2012

In Memory of my Grandmother
Rita Barbara Roman
April 4th, 1933 - January 17, 2012

My grandmother recently departed this life after a brief but difficult struggle with cancer. A funeral service was held on January 22nd in Binghamton. Her four children and I each had an opportunity to speak.

Following is the speech I wrote and delivered in her memory:

I’m Mike Webb, firstborn grandson.

Imagine yourself in a house you have never left. Virtually your entire existence has been defined by what lies between its walls, supplemented only by the impoverished snapshot of the immediate outside world afforded by the windows.

It’s a perfectly lovely house with agreeable décor and furnishings, and indeed it’s all you’ve ever known. But one day, you leave the house and embark on a journey. When you first step out the door, the view is comparable to what you’ve always seen through the windows. But once you reach the end of the street, you pause and look back, and for the first time ever, you see your house amid other houses. You see an entire beautiful neighborhood.

After a moment, you continue on your way, through other neighborhoods and eventually into the open countryside, where once again you pause and look back. You can no longer see your house, nor even your neighborhood, but instead you see a beautiful city, the extent and boundaries of which you had never envisioned nor even imagined. It had simply never been part of your reality. And although you can no longer see it, you know your house is still there, in its neighborhood, in turn within that city.

So you continue on into the countryside, and after nightfall you stop to rest. For the third time, you look back, and what you previously saw as a city is now but a distant glow on the horizon. And that same otherwise dark horizon is punctuated intermittently by the glow of other cities and towns. But somewhere in the distance, you know your house is there, in your neighborhood, inside your city.

As we all go about our individual journeys, we tend to keep our eyes ahead so we can see where we’re going, such that whenever we do pause to look back, our perspective has broadened significantly and in ways we never could have imagined.

Forgive the lengthy metaphor, but as I debated what I was going to say today, I realized it underscores how I relate to my grandmother, and her life, in so many ways. A grandmother who I spent my youngest years calling “Gramma,” but who, sometime in the last two decades, I came to refer to simply as “Gram.”

Occasionally, in all its meanderings, life endows us with such a paradigm-shifting realization; and we see, with renewed and unprecedented clarity, that what we always took to be typical and ordinary is in fact precious, and extraordinary. I had the gift of a gramma who I always knew, and who was always there, with a very active role in my life. I grew up thinking this was typical; only with time and my own increasing awareness and independence did I see how uncommon and special it was. How special she was. And still is.

A few days ago, when I got together with my mom and Uncles Marshall and Mike to put together the collage and slideshow, we went through several generations’ worth of photos – quite literally thousands – dating back at least to the 1920s, when Gram’s parents were a young couple. There were numerous, shall we say, selectively and sporadically labeled photos of her father, her mother, and an assortment of random relatives and friends, including some unknown fellow named “Woody” who kept showing up all over the place. (After a while, we started simply referring to any unknown person in any old photo as “Woody,” a name that came to lie at the intersection of expediency and dry humor – a Roman trademark if there ever was one.)

When we went through all those photos, it was ostensibly a tribute to Gram, a celebration of her life, and a nostalgic gesture to everybody who would be in attendance today. But what it became for me personally was a poignant realization of the magnitude and depth of her life and legacy. Because long before she was Gram or even Gramma, she was Mom, and she was sister and daughter earlier still. A lifetime – many lifetimes, even – all a part of her story. A story I had witnessed only in part, but which now unfolded before me like a torrent of love, of compassion, and of humanity.

At the time I was born, having recently finished raising her own four children, one might think she’d be a little weary of All Things Baby. Bottles, burping, diapers, naps, crying, vomiting (especially in my case), and numerous other things I’ve done my best to forget having been the source of – to say nothing of years later, endlessly harassing her to play Monopoly, or some other board game, or play outside with me, or all manner of other childlike whims that seem to presume the attending adult couldn’t possibly have anything better to do.

But from the photos, and indeed from everything I do remember, she embraced the role without hesitation. Her “mommy switch” flipped back on as though it had never been off. Although she occasionally reminded me over the years of how my finicky sleep habits as an infant made it very difficult for her to enjoy her Yankees games, I know that beneath that signature dry humor lay an adoration and love that never once wavered in the 32 years I was blessed to have her in my life.

But I certainly don’t claim exclusivity; I merely had the benefit of proximity. As the photos readily bear out, the arrival of each subsequent grandchild, and ultimately her great-grandchild who she finally met only recently, engendered that familiar loving response. Indeed, it wasn’t not so much a response as it was simply who she was. And it’s worth noting that her various furry companions over the years were no exception, perhaps most saliently our beloved Kermit, by whom she was abruptly and unexpectedly predeceased by not even two weeks.

I lived in California from the summer after my college graduation in 2003 until late 2010. My return was motivated by many factors, but Gram’s advancing age was a not-insignificant consideration. Once I returned to Ithaca, I tried to capitalize on the luxury of being only an hour’s drive away, usually going to Binghamton at least once a week and often more. And yet still, as she lay in her hospital bed and it began to be clear that she wouldn’t be with us much longer, I found myself looking back, rifling through my memories, and practically auditing myself. Questioning whether I’d spent enough time with her, whether I’d done enough to show her that her love was deeply appreciated and reciprocated. And I was saddened by the fear that I had not done enough. I allayed this fear somewhat when I discussed it with a friend who lost his mom a few years ago, and we agreed that for a cherished loved one, nothing we do ever really feels like enough to us. And I drew some comfort from that understanding.

But still it bothered me. A few days after Gram was transferred to hospice and I feared time may be running out, I asked for a moment alone with her. I won’t go into all the things I said to her, but I did tell her I love her very much, that I appreciate everything she’d done for me, and that I wished I’d done more to show it. And although she was not able to speak at the time, I could tell from her expressions and gestures that she heard and understood me, and almost seemed to be trying to tell me “it’s okay,” and that I need not worry. For that moment, I truly believe – or at the very least, I hope with all the will that I can summon – that we were both at peace.

I shall always cherish my memories of even the simplest things we shared. Even if it was just going to Friendly’s or IHOP with my mom on Friday evenings this past summer and then watching a few hours of TV together (which, if you know me, you’d realize was pretty much the only TV I watched). And I proved that I can allow her to get through a Yankees game more or less undisturbed, although I occasionally horrified her and risked excommunication by asking questions like, “Who was in the World Series last year?”

I hope she would be honored to know that many things she taught me are indelibly etched in my mind. How “hopefully” is not really a word, how you “lie down” as opposed to “lay down,” how the correct pronunciation of “fortay” as it’s often used was traditionally “fort,” and many other miscellaneous nuggets of language and grammar (and don’t even get me started on how my young mind concluded that somebody called “Gramma” being an expert on “grammar” was somehow both expected and appropriate). She joined other immediate family in kindling and actively facilitating my interest in science and technology. Although I did not decide to pursue a technical career, the breadth of knowledge she encouraged me to embrace has served me very well. The mere fact that when I built two nine-foot towers out of Construx, she allowed them to stand in the living room for the better part of a year – twice! – says everything.

The path my life has taken, especially in the last year-and-a-half, has often led me to ponder the old adage about “You can never go home.” I think I have often favored a more cynical interpretation – that who we become through the gradual attrition of innocence and accumulation of scars makes that which we once called “home” somehow less tenable as “home” to our present selves. But standing here today, I see it more as enrichment and broadening of perspective, something that grows noticeably every time we pause in our journeys to look fondly over our shoulder, to gaze upon where we’ve been, and off in the distance to where it all began.

For when I return to that house, in that neighborhood, in that city, although the furnishings and décor may have evolved, and the trees and the cars parked outside are different, essentially it’s still largely as I remember it. The only difference is now, I am aware of the neighborhood, I am aware of the city, and to some degree I am aware of the universe as a whole within which that house exists.

Thank you, Gram, for always being a part of “home,” both in what I remember and in how I live today. For all the love, caring, and guidance you always showed, you live on not just in my memory – but in who I am, and in who I endeavor to be. And I hope your own journey has brought you some fulfillment and peace.

In closing, I recall a bedtime ritual we shared in my childhood. There was a small square of paper I kept by my bed that served as a “cue card” of sorts, and for what must have been several years, I wasn’t content and ready to drift off until we echoed the familiar refrain that it prompted. And so I echo it again today, at least with the degree of accuracy my memory permits: Gram, I love you a million billion googols, to the infinite power, and all that stuff.

And I always will.

Making History Repeating Itself

Making History Repeating Itself

It occurred to me last night that I've had the unusual opportunity to be living in two different states at the points in time at which each achieved marriage equality. Granted, I was also in the first of said states when said equality was again taken away ... well, for the moment at least.

My preliminary impression is that the legislative nature of New York's victory has spurred a far more celebratory spirit than the judicial one did in California, in spite of both having the same basic outcome.

Neither Kittens nor Jedi are Safe

Neither Kittens nor Jedi are Safe

I'm not entirely sure what this dashboard indicator is intended to warn me about...

...but I have a couple guesses:

Those Subaru folks really thought of just about everything! I just wish there was a light to warn me when a door is ajar... (Or when it's still a door, for that matter, but open.)

Dead-End Corporate ... What?

Dead-End Corporate ... What?

Either the person who named this road near Binghamton had an amusingly twisted sense of humor, or truth really is stranger than fiction:

(Thanks to MapQuest for the little map snippet.)

Actually if you look closely, there's a second embedded joke in the map. A road named "Link" that doesn't actually connect to anything? Really now.

Okay, so it's doubtless named after noted local historical figure Edwin A. Link, but I'm willing to conveniently overlook that. (OW! I just split an infinitive! Somebody get me a Band-Aid...)

Downright Tropical

Downright Tropical

It occurred to me tonight that the last time I spent an entire winter in New York (2002-2003), the car I had at the time didn't have an outside temperature gauge. When you do have one, it has the effect of reminding you precisely how Freaking Freezing (tm) it is every time you get in to drive somewhere.

Granted, it's been an especially cold weekend here, dancing around both sides of zero depending on what part of town you're in. But I took a short drive out into the country tonight, and watched the temperature plummet about a degree every half-mile until it bottomed out at -9. In fact, it's quite likely it got well below that, but I don't think my gauge is capable of displaying double-digit negative temperatures. (The minus sign would interfere with displaying a tens digit.)

And yes, I'm aware that my gas mileage is sucking at the moment. There are probably several reasons for that, including too many short around-town trips, some snowy/slippery roads I had to drive a few nights ago, and some sizeable tire-rubbing fender bergs I accumulated that needed to be blasted out at a coin-op car wash bay. Altogether it takes a toll...

Keith Olbermann: Farewell (For Now)

Keith Olbermann: Farewell (For Now)

Cable news just lost one of its few progressive heroes, and it's a poorer place for it.

We don't yet know much about the facts behind the severance of ties between Keith Olbermann and MSNBC, and although there's endless speculation as to the hows/whys/what's-nexts for both parties, for the moment, speculation is all it remains.

Olbermann was one of the most forcefully intelligent, profoundly articulate figures on television; his passion for principle and integrity, and his masterfully deft eloquence, dovetailed and begat a veritable juggernaut of bold ideas borne of truth, and of an unwavering faith in humanity's capacity to overcome the worst of its present-day tribulations. Not coincidentally, Olbermann was almost single-handedly responsible for the recent rise of the progressive voice in mainstream TV news, a space now populated by similarly brilliant and passionate figures such as Rachel Maddow and Lawrence O'Donnell -- both of whom might not be there now if not for the foundation Olbermann so expertly laid.

For ages, the far right has unrelentingly decried what they implore society to perceive as a "liberal bias" in mainstream news, essentially a label slapped haphazardly on any principled pursuit of accountability and truth. In capitulatory response (all too reminiscent of many elected officials "accused" of being "liberal"), news organizations have tiptoed ever more delicately around sensitive or charged issues so as to avoid even the faintest risk of incurring such accusations, often sacrificing substance and true journalistic integrity along the way. In turn, an entire network was founded to counter the straw man, and today Fox "News" enjoys a loyal following in the same sense that certain daytime talk shows appeal to some people's morbid fascination with the angry, the sensational, and the obscene.

So who would stand up in the face of this nonsense and speak the truth? Who would brazenly stare the demon of ideological-label delegitimization in the face, and defy it without fear?

Keith Olbermann.

Some have simplistically portrayed Olbermann as the ideological counterpart to some of the prominent figures on Fox (generally Bill O'Reilly or Glenn Beck). This nonsense false-equivalence argument may be valid only in the sense that "passionately articulate" is a counterpart to "raving angry," or "intelligently principled" to "dangerously delusional," but beyond that, it implies a dichotomy that lends undeserved credence to an alarmingly misguided worldview.

Or to paraphrase the great Bill Maher, just because there are two opposing sets of ideas doesn't mean both sides have a valid point. There are numerous examples of this throughout history which are retrospective no-brainers in our modern context -- just as today's most contentious struggles will be viewed through some future context, assuming we get that far.

Olbermann reminded us that the defenders of the status quo will always stop at nothing to portray proponents of progress as insidious threats to our very way of life, but we cannot let that weary old canard silence us. It's nothing more than a last-ditch act of desperation in the face of an undeniable awakening to emerging realities.

Of course, one might draw the conclusion that I'm writing a eulogy for either Olbermann or his role in galvanizing this nation's discourse, but neither Olbermann nor his career have passed. I have no doubt we'll see him again, as soon as wildly-speculated-upon-yet-still-unknown contractual obligations permit. I just fear for the future of MSNBC, if indeed this is foreshadowing changes to come, although I stress that such implications are pure conjecture at this point.

The funny thing about the myth of "liberal bias" in the mainstream media is that the far right holds a deeply intrinsic advantage in that realm: money controls mainstream media, and money almost always favors far-right policies, because far-right policies favor money. It's an incredibly simple phrase of reciprocal ideological arithmetic that underlies so much of the tumult and turmoil in politics today, expertly sustained from one electoral generation to the next by empty-yet-poignant appeals to tradition and enticing-yet-thoroughly-debunked economic mythology.

I think it's safe to assume MSNBC supported the direction Olbermann forged for them because it gave them an identity and a niche, and because it thus made money for them. They weren't giving him a platform from which to speak the truth out of the charitable goodness of their hearts. Corporations generally don't work that way. If the relevant higher-ups at MSNBC (or Comcast, its new owners) decide they can make even more money by catering to other markets, they'll drop the progressive "gimmick" like a hot potato, to hell with their loyal viewers. It's that simple. (And I would remind the reader that succeeding as a business doesn't necessarily mean you're doing good things for the world. There are companies that make a lot of money selling cigarettes, for instance.)

In the end, then, I sincerely hope Olbermann's departure isn't a sign of any forthcoming ideological reorganization at MSNBC borne of the eternal pursuit of the Almighty Dollar. But even if it is, there'll be another way.

Money and material success are alluring, yet ultimately transient -- but truth is immortal.

And I know Keith Olbermann will continue to lend his voice to the propagation of truth as long as he has a voice to give, which I hope continues to be the case for a long time to come. In the meantime, Maddow and O'Donnell have some big shoes to fill, but I fully expect they'll do Olbermann (and all of us) proud.